Forty Speakers, One Truth

It's a Friday and most of me wants to chill at home, cocoon the night away. But the wife says her old friend with the new boyfriend wants us to meet them down at the Cleveland Museum of Art and offer beau feedback. The gathering is a mixy something--mild DJ, cash bar and all the exhibits open late. O.k., at the very least it means soaking up some majestifying light in the museum's new atrium.

A short wandering while later, now in the museum proper, faint choral music drifts down the original 1916 Building's marble steps, drawing us upward. We climb toward the Italian Baroque gallery, never expecting to be heaven sent. Because in that space, amidst the big drama art (huge paintings of Christ appearing to the Virgin, Samson getting his locks chopped by Delilah, Venus discovering the dead Adonis), we discover forty crispy quality speakers on forty individual tripods, clustered in eight groups of five, forming an oval that fills the gallery's floor space.

And from each of the forty speakers comes a single singing voice, each one recorded separately. Forty tracks of a choir singing in Latin--e pluribus transcendence.

The effect is staggering, walloping the senses--the eyes scramble at the sculptural aspect, the body zombie-moves into the middle to sit on the padded benches, the nose detects the hushing odor of greatness and the ears, well, good luck ingesting all the beauty made by this sound in this space.

It's officially called Forty-Part Motet, a sound installation by Canadian artist Janet Cardiff. There's a little booklet available, filled with artist-interview gems like, "You can almost  see the movement of the music around the room" and, "I really wanted the sense that each speaker was a person." Memo to Janet--you succeeded.

The fourteen minute song loops, with ambient choir voices filling the three minute breaks in between (you can hear singers chatting, coughing, chuckling). Artist Cardiff says keeping that stuff audible keeps the sound sculpture real.

Which is good, because the three times I've been it feels like I'm melting into the ceiling, extended on the sublime notes of people posing as angels. Each time I see and share the amazement in faces older and younger, black, white, Asian, latino, tee shirted and buttoned down, museum novices and the old guard alike.

When it's done most everybody pauses, looks around, and smiles. Forty speakers worth of truth and wonder.

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